The Revd John Postlethwaite (1828-1886)

The Revd John Postlethwaite

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupation: Priest

Ancestry and early life

John Postlethwaite was born in 1828, the eldest son of Robert Postlethwaite (1784-1859) JP, DL of Broughton House, Broughton-in-Furness, who had married in 1823 Agnes (1795-1853), second daughter of William Lewthwaite JP DL of Broadgate, Thwaites, near Millom. Later the couple moved to The Oaks, The Green, near Millom, an old house which they greatly enlarged. The Postlethwaite family had been mercers (dealers in textile fabrics) in the 18th Century and managed to squeeze themselves into the 1871 edition of Burke's Landed Gentry, having converted their trading background into a landed one. By 1873 the family owned over 1,000 acres in the Broughton and Millom districts.

In 1840 Robert Postlethwaite made the odd decision to appoint Branwell Bronte (1817-1848; ODNB), the dissolute brother of the famous Bronte sisters, to act as the private tutor to his two sons: John and his younger brother William (b.1829). Branwell described his employer as ‘a retired county magistrate, a large landowner of a right hearty and generous disposition’, his wife as ‘a quiet, silent and amiable woman’ and his two charges as ‘fine, spirited lads’. However, as recounted at length in the chapter headed ‘Mr Postlethwaite's tutor’ in Winifred Gerin's Branwell Bronte (1961), Branwell soon neglected his pupils and took to drink and drugs, with the inevitable result that he was dismissed.

Quite what happened next to the education of the two young Postlethwaites is not recorded but John entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1846, aged 18, and in 1851 obtained his BA degree (MA, 1854). He was ordained priest in 1852 and in 1853 was appointed vicar of Christ Church, Coatham, near Redcar by Mrs Teresa Newcomen of Kirkleatham Hall, Redcar, who provided an annual stipend of £50. Fortunately he not only shared the high church leaning of his patroness but he also had private means. In addition, he became the pastor of the Homes of the Good Samaritan at Coatham between 1860 until his death in 1886. This was a convalescent home built in 1861 in the Gothic style by Postlethwaite, at his own expense, for the purpose of nursing the sick and caring for the poor. Mrs Newcomen had also founded a small community of Anglican nuns called the Coatham sisterhood (later the Community of the Holy Rood), to which Postlethwaite became the chaplain. The nuns were also trained as nurses. In addition, in 1861, an annex was built specifically to accommodate sick and needy children. This marked the birth of perhaps the first modern hospital in a Teeside town. The building was eventually demolished in 1952. The famous Sister Dora (Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison; 1832-1878; ODNB)), whose brother Mark was the rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, began her training there before moving to Walsall in the Black Country.

Colonial aspirations

However, in parallel to all this, in June 1864, the Revd John Postlethwaite was lobbying Bishop Hills of British Columbia in Canada ‘on behalf of an unnamed clergyman, asking about opportunities in the diocese of British Columbia for truly missionary work to those to whom the Gospel has never been preached’. On meeting the bishop in England, he disclosed that he was the anonymous clergyman concerned and that would pay his own way. Bishop Hills leapt at this opportunity of employing Postlethwaite to superintend all mission work among the native people of North West Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands, suggesting that he might become an archdeacon. After further discussion both the Colonial Bishoprics Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury approved Postlethwaite's appointment not as an archdeacon but as Bishop-elect of the new diocese of New Westminster. At only 36 and with little administrative experience to his credit this seems an extraordinary appointment but Hills pointed out that Postlethwaite had already been offered the bishopric of Madagascar by Bishop Gray of Capetown, but that this had been blocked by the Archdeacon of Cleveland ‘who took it upon himself to complain of the impropriety of colonial bishops who travelled through England “kidnapping” clergy’. The New Westminster appointment was also dependent on the necessary funds being raised and particularly upon the approval of Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906; ODNB) who had endowed the see of British Columbia with £15,000 in 1858.  At first she agreed but later changed her mind, but not before Postlethwaite had resigned the living of Coatham, ordered his cope, mitre and crozier and sent off letters in all directions signed ‘John Postlethwaite, Bishop-elect of New Westminster’. Funding proved difficult and there were also other problems, as opposition to his appointment came from both sides of the Atlantic, but worse than that he soon became tainted by scandal.

By the end of 1864 there had been persistent rumours about John Postlethwaite's private life. It was alleged that he had been engaged to a wealthy Yorkshirewoman but that before the marriage could take place one of his female servants had threatened him with exposure should it proceed. It was also rumoured that ‘he had established a Society of Christian Friends (the nuns at Coatham) in which the custom was that the Kiss of Peace passed from one member to another. There was, it is said, much scandal touching this society......In addition it is said that Mr Postlethwaite is a man of extreme views’, of the High Church variety.

Bishop Hills of British Columbia sounded out a mutual friend about these allegations and was satisfied in his own mind that they were ‘if not groundless, at least not of sufficient moment to require a change in plans’ and by the end of 1865 Postlethwaite was recruiting clergy for his new diocese. In May 1866, he sent some of his furniture, books and other possessions to New Westminster. Hills continued to write to him as ‘My dear Bishop designate’.

Marriage and its consequences

On the 26th June 1866 the Revd John Postlethwaite finally took the plunge and married, at St Saviours, Pimlico, Isabella Frazer (1839-1875), daughter of Lawrence Frazer R.N. (Retd) of Walsall, Staffordshire, who later became a Coast Guard on the East coast. On further enquiry it turned out that Postlethwaite’s wife was ‘formerly his servant and latterly one of the sisters at Coatham’. She was Sister Dora's closest friend, an associate sister who worked in the kitchen. When Mark Pattinson, Sister Dora's formidable brother the rector (master) of Lincoln College, Oxford heard this news he was outraged, accusing Postlethwaite of committing the solecism of marrying not merely a cook, but his own cook. Bishop Hills immediately panicked and wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that he would now view Postlethwaite's consecration with distaste. Postlethwaite was urged to withdraw from the position of Bishop-designate and, as if to add insult to injury, it was suggested that he should emigrate ‘as a private clergyman to Natal or some other Colony’.

From this moment onwards, Postlethwaite's episcopal aspirations were doomed, but he had the final say, writing to Bishop Hills on the 15th November 1866:

I have not yet arrived at the conclusion that my marriage was an error of judgement, nor that I should have been the less fitted for missionary work in the colony. Perhaps, after all, I may be free and able to do some missionary work in England.......even if my services are rejected by the aristocratic notions of Lambeth (I am sorry they are shared by a Colonial Bishop).

The Revd John Postlethwaite, who had never been consecrated as a bishop and was now without any ecclesiastical appointment, retired in high dudgeon to his house at Wreaks End, near Broughton-in-Furness. He was only thirty-eight and, for whatever reason, was never to hold another living, being described in the 1881 census return as a ‘clergyman without cure of souls’.

By his first wife, of whom the church hierarchy so disapproved, he had four children. The eldest was Margaret Rosalie (Madge), (1867-1964) who married the Revd. John Pirrie Robinson Cheyne (1855-1906) of Turriff, Aberdeenshire. In 1880 he was curate of St Judge's, West Derby, Liverpool and later acted as chaplain to the convalescent home at Coatham.  A widow for fifty eight years, Madge had no children and lived at Greety Gate, Broughton-in-Furness.  Following her death in 1964 aged 97, she was buried in the churchyard at Christ Church, Coatham.  Their second child was John Harold (1869-1946) who married Mabel _? and left issue. In 1887 he was a fruit farmer in New Zealand but by 1904 had moved to Cape Colony, South Africa and eventually died in Ontario, Canada.  Next was Agnes Hilda (1871-1954) who married in 1895 Canon Frederic Earle d' Anyers Willis (1869-1940), and left issue (see BLG 1969). He was rector of St Elphin’s, Warrington, then of Willington, Lincolnshire by 1901 and finally of Haigh and Aspull, near Wigan, becoming a canon of Liverpool cathedral.  Fourth in the family was William Cuthbert (1874-1962), who was educated at Sedbergh and Trinity College, Cambridge (BA,1896; MA,1905).  In 1906 he married Mona Margaret Hutchinson (1887-1958), daughter of William Arthur Hutchinson (d.1909), JP CP MHK, formerly of Brighouse, Halifax, Yorkshire and later a prominent businessman of the Groves, Braddan, Isle of Man.  He was vicar of St Matthew’s, Barrow-in-Furness from 1906-1915 and chaplain to the Forces 1908-1919 (during World War I he served in the Lancashire and Cheshire Royal Garrison Artillery). Next he was vicar of Dalton-in-Furness from 1915-1928 and finally rector of Adel, near Leeds from 1928-1946, a living in the gift of his relations the Lewthwaites of Broadgate,Millom. He was an honorary canon of Carlisle cathedral from 1922, chairman of the governors of Coatham Convalescent Home, Redcar and assistant district commissioner of Wharfdale Boy Scout Association. In 1946 he retired to his house, Gable Mount, Broughton-in-Furness leaving an only son William John (1910-1994), SRN, STD, of Gateside, Whicham, who married Ellen -? but died with no children.

The later years

From the mid-1860s, the Revd John Postlethwaite appears to have lived at Wreaks End, near Broughton-in-Furness but remained nominally pastor of the Homes of the Good Samaritan at Coatham for the rest of his life. His first wife died in 1875 and in 1879 he married, at Holy Trinity Church,Paddington, Mrs Mary Radford, daughter of Godfrey Wood and the widow of James Radford of Hillam Hall, near Pontefract, but there were no further children. He was known in the Broughton-in-Furness district as a generous-hearted man and was for many years the manager, correspondent and treasurer of Broughton School, as well as being a considerable landowner and a JP.

Latterly the Postlethwaites lived in Cambridge, in a house rented from the University, which they aptly christened Furness Lodge, (opposite the University Arms Hotel), which retained this name until recent times. Postlethwaite died there on 23 July 1886 aged 58, his dreams of a colonial bishopric never having being realised, probably for all the wrong reasons, as the so called scandal associated with his proposed appointment to be the first Bishop of New Westminster seemed to amount to little more than his marriage to one of his former servants who had become an associate sister at Coatham.


  • Burke's Landed Gentry 1871.
  • Cockerill, Timothy, A Bronte at Broughton-in-Furness, 34-35, Bronte Society Transactions 1966, 34-5 and Branwell Bronte and the Postlethwaites, Bronte Society Transactions 1998, 149-153
  • Crockford's Clerical Directory, various editions
  • Gerin, Winifred, Branwell Bronte, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1961, 162-181
  • Manton, Jo, Sister Dora, Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1971, 16 references to the Revd John Postlethwaite between 150-343  
  • Return of Owners of Land 1873
  • Whitehaven Archives, Cumbria, ref. YDLEW 10/47/1-25
  • Family information: the author is related to the Postlethwaite family